Taking my items out of the shopping basket and placing them onto the conveyor belt, I realize I have forgotten trash bags.
After a short pause required to recall the actual name for those in Portuguese, I exclaim as much out loud with a goofy smile. That, too, is a novelty: I’m smiling again. For five years, I went missing from my own life as major depressive disorder took hold and wouldn’t let go. It swallowed my writing voice and my livelihood with it, catapulted my household into hardship and smothered my marriage.
For the longest time, there was nothing to smile about anymore.
Fast forward to summer 2018 and I get shell-shocked into putting words together again for the first time in five years. Then my best friend dies, my stepmom receives a Stage IV cancer diagnosis, and the next thing I know I’m at the Seattle airport boarding a transatlantic flight to Paris.
I’m still trying to pull myself out of illness and hardship through the strength of my words but my family takes precedence over everything else. It does take six months but I write my way back to Europe, supplementing my tiny earnings with fundraising.
In the midst of it all, I also start remembering what makes me me, like a language and culture I reluctantly set aside seven years ago.
Soon, I notice plugging back into Portuguese has the ability to take me away from adverse circumstances for a while. And give me much-needed room to breathe, reflect, regroup.
Portugal once held my heart and having to leave in 2011 broke it. Instead of dealing with it, I forged ahead and attempted to forget everything about my Portuguese life. Including the language that uncovered a sensitivity I didn’t know I had and reaches deep within the places I can’t access otherwise.
For seven years, I condemned myself to an incomplete life, walking around with a growing hole in my heart.
In this context, losing five years to depression is becoming less and less surprising.
My facial muscles have been getting quite a workout since I landed in Lisbon despite spending the previous night up dealing with an emergency.
What meagre funds I had put by and more besides disappeared through a series of fraudulent transactions on a debit card I’ve never even used in Europe. Because of course I’m too cash-strapped to even have a credit card, which makes me an American anomaly.
Far too exhausted and emotionally depleted to panic, I go through the motions of dealing with it, one step after the other. I used to travel for a living so have contingency plans in place and reflexively still keep a cool head in extreme situations. It surprises me.
And I know how to survive on very little. It is a skill I developed while living through a brutal austerity crisis in Portugal from 2008 to 2011, and over the last five years in the US. Hardship forces you to become resourceful to a fault because you have no choice. You learn to make do, you learn to make the impossible happen, you learn to ask random strangers for help, too.
A fraud case was the last thing I needed after a recent burnout. Or the heartache that is navigating the daily reality of my stepmom’s Stage IV cancer and my 71-year-old father crumbling. Or that chronic illness of mine. Or whatever passes for my American life.
But nothing is ever going to get between Portugal and me again. I’ve been running on empty for months and need to build up strength before my stepmom’s next appointment with her oncologist.
For a while already, Portuguese has been keeping me afloat so going back to the source is an obvious move. And I need time to figure out how I’m going to make 2019 work so I can be present for my family.
Since landing in Paris at the end of December, I haven’t had a moment to myself. Stress has been intensifying and reaching such levels that my father’s home is a powder keg. This isn’t the ideal environment for a chronic depressive and I must protect myself otherwise I won’t be of any use to anyone, just another burden they don’t need.
My trade is writing, and if I collapse again, I stand to become unable to work once more.
This isn’t even an option so I’ve been using Portuguese as a shield.
For seven years, I silenced a part of me.
I hoped Portuguese would eventually go away if I didn’t keep it up so I shut it out, condemning myself to live with ghosts. Little did I realize at the time those were benevolent ghosts. Portuguese changed my life after I fell into it by accident. This isn’t something you can undo any more than you can ignore it, and yet this is what I did.
It was easy in America where I’ve been living a self-contained, isolated life devoid of intellectual stimulation since 2013. Depression felled me almost as soon as I immigrated and it’s all been downhill from there on every front.
Recovering my writing voice was the first step toward becoming functional again. But it was only the first step.
To become whole, I must face all my ghosts and demons, of whom there are many, some too dangerous to handle on my own.
Thankfully, the language that used to breathe life into me has remained more or less intact. When I hear it again for the first time in November, it breaks me. I spend an entire day sobbing as I listen to music after five years of silence, Portuguese music at that. Pushing through the intense discomfort of it all takes several boxes of tissues but it is very cathartic, a breakthrough of sorts.
Despite losing some of my fluency and struggling with intonation a little more often than I used to, I still derive immense joy from Portuguese. Even a chat with the checkout lady at the supermarket to ask about the location of the trash bags goes a long way toward rewiring my brain.
I can feel myself coming back to life and gathering strength.
Seeing my family again for the first time in five years is also helping me recover a clearer sense of self.
But the complex relationship I have with my parents is a double-edged sword with the tendency to reactivate trauma. And unearth random repressed memories which go off like unexploded landmines. It doesn’t help my parents keep urging me to seek medical help, no matter how often I remind them I was never able to afford it in America.
To a French person, such a situation as mine is unthinkable and I won’t pretend I completely understand it myself. There are many legitimate questions that need asking, not least why I was left to hold my own hand throughout.
But reintegrating the EU workforce in any capacity will make me eligible for universal health care so this is what I’m working on right now.
Forward planning and strategic thinking are abilities depression had taken away. Being able to use them again effectively means progress.
This is just the beginning of an improvement process set to last a lifetime because you can never recover from a chronic illness. Instead, you have to devise ways to deflect the mental and emotional abuse it subjects you to so you can keep going, and thrive regardless.
In practice, this means getting clear about what made you into the person you were before the illness struck. Only then can you assess who it turned you into (a toddler with boobs and a library card, in my case) so you can begin to figure out how to become yourself again.
Although this is exceedingly difficult to do without help, it’s not impossible even when your brain keeps trying to kill you. It helps that there are people who need me and whom I cannot let down.
In a roundabout way, my stepmom’s cancer is spurring me on to be and do my best.
As I sift through the pieces of a broken life, some are far easier to deal with than others.
No matter how complex a language Portuguese is, hard work, practice, and a new grammar book will get me back to fluency provided I apply myself. Generating an income that grants me financial independence is more of challenge. Then again, I trust vocation and determination will see me through. And the minute I start paying EU taxes no matter how modest, better health will be within my reach.
Meanwhile, my personal life is a conundrum I cannot yet parse because a lot of it remains incomprehensible to me.
Of all the tough choices involved in bootstrapping recovery as I am doing, putting yourself first is the most vital one. This is what leads me to Lisbon for a few days on a fact-finding mission, an expense I’m offsetting by working even more. Because the benefits of being here far outweigh any financial discomfort, which is my default mode anyway.
This trip marks the first time in five years that I surrender to my heart and allow it to lead me back to myself.
For it has always been my compass, it just needed mending in order to work again.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.